Pirates, emperors, and moral authority

By Bernadette Meaden
August 18, 2018

The term ‘whataboutery’  had not been coined in the 5th century, but no doubt if Augustine of Hippo were writing now, somebody would accuse him of it. Nevertheless, as outlandish accusations are thrown about in ever more heated and hyperbolic rhetoric, it can be good to take a step back from current politics and get some perspective from ancient history.

In The City of God, (Book 4, Chapter 3) Augustine wrote, “Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.”

It is an inconvenient truth that some of the world leaders who are now honoured with state visits, or pose with the Prime Minister in Downing Street, are only clothed with respectability and honoured as statesmen because they won a brutal struggle by being more ruthless than their rivals, or by possessing superior military force.

In the case of many states, the question Augustine asked applies: “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity.”

So history’s winners, with this impunity, can commemorate men who were once considered terrorists but in victory are celebrated as nation builders. Whether someone is considered a freedom fighter or a terrorist has very little to do with morality and a great deal to do with brute force and winning, as Augustine pointed out over a thousand years ago.

These matters are mired in moral compromise and encrusted in hypocrisy, which is why Jeremy Hunt, whose government has licensed £4.6 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia since it started bombing Yemen, and may baulk at honouring British victims of terrorism when they do not fit a particular narrative, can, with an almost sublime lack of self-awareness, question whether Jeremy Corbyn would  ‘have the moral authority to condemn terrorist murders of British citizens’.

There is a hysterical quality to current debates – we sorely need some historical perspective, and a pause to think about motes and beams, perhaps.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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